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Universal Dyslexia Screening: What You Need to Know

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Universal dyslexia screening is a focal point of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ education agenda. 

On the campaign trail in 2021, Adams, a former New York Police Department Captain, said that early interventions aimed at students at risk of developing dyslexia would not only increase literacy but could reduce the city’s prison population over time. According to Adams, 30 percent of those incarcerated in the city are dyslexic, while a study conducted in a Texas prison found nearly 50 percent of the population was dyslexic. 

While details on what universal dyslexia screening in New York City, the nation’s largest school district, might look like remain limited, city education officials recently announced that they are planning to open a school focused on serving students with dyslexia. 

Universal dyslexia screening is not required in New York state, however, it is required in 39 other states and is an important evidence-based intervention, say researchers. 

How Does Universal Dyslexia Screening Work? 

Dyslexia affects approximately 20 percent of the population and accounts for 80 to 90 percent of learning disabilities, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. Early recognition of the risk for dyslexia and other word-level disabilities through universal screening in kindergarten, and then providing those students with intensive intervention, is a key early literacy strategy, says the National Center on Improving Literacy in a white paper

Hank Fien, Ph. D, director of the National Center on Improving Literacy and co-author of the white paper, says that when children who need additional support learning to read are provided that support early, it can make a huge difference. 

“There are going to be those kids who are going to respond very well, immediately to those interventions,” he says. “We may prevent them from ever being evaluated for disability because they've solved their issue of learning to read words effectively, and then learning to read connected text accurately and fluently.” 

Other students identified in the screening may still struggle with reading and still receive a dyslexia diagnosis, or diagnoses for another learning disability. However, early evidence-based literacy interventions are still helpful to these students. “Most of them still respond to some degree, and in the absence of getting that support, their disability may have been even more severe than it would have been had we not intervened early,” Fien says. 

Dyslexia Screening Does Not Equal A Dyslexia Diagnosis  

The type of dyslexia screening that occurs in schools – which typically involves a series of brief tests to explore a student’s ability in areas such as reading, writing and spelling – merely identifies young students who are struggling to read and is not to be confused with a medical diagnosis that is generally provided by a healthcare provider. 

However, even when it comes to medical diagnoses, there are disparities that can result in certain students not getting the support they need. “Mostly it's wealthy individuals that can refer their child to get a formal medical diagnosis,” Fien says. That’s why even if it’s not a formal diagnosis, universal screening for dyslexia can help give all students the additional resources they need.  

Where Is Universal Dyslexia Screening Required?  

“It is now the norm that states require universal screening in their early elementary grades,” says Brian Gearin, Ph. D, a researcher at the Center on Teaching and Learning at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the National Center on Improving Literacy’s white paper. “It varies a little bit, in terms of which grades universal screening occurred, [and] the extent to which schools do that is a slightly different question because all we can say is that there are laws that say schools are supposed to do this.” 

Only 11 states do not require universal dyslexia screening. These are: 

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Hawaii 
  • Idaho 
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin 

Education and policy leaders looking to advocate for screening requirements in their state can use resources available on the National Center on Improving Literacy website, which provides links to the research that supports these policies. 

Enacting screening policies in more states and making sure existing policies are effectively enforced, can help more students get screened during the critical, early-intervention window. “There's much more evidence behind early intervention programs addressing these issues, versus waiting to catch these kids in upper elementary or middle school or later,” Fien says. If you wait, the odds of success can be relatively low, and it becomes much more expensive to address, he says.

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.